The Anti-Slavery Agenda in the Narrative of Oroonoko
Oroonoko is a story written by Aphra Behn. The story is about an is an African prince from Coramantien, who is later focused into slavery. Oroonoko’s tale was told from Aphra Behn’s perspective. Behn claims to have known Oroonok during his captivity time. Oroonoko comes from a royal blood line.
In Oroonoko, Aphra Behn went beyond the norms of her time period to say nice things about people of color. But at the same time, she wrote from a perspective that assumed European superiority, she wrote to please her audience. Oroonoko is set in a time before the African embargo on slave exportation. Oroonoko, his grandfather, the king, and his enemies actively engage in the slave trade of their people. The African concept of slavery is different from the Surinam. Behn calls attention to what she considers cruel behavior by some plantation owners. While Prince Oroonoko might look upon their condition in terms of ill fortune, or the price of defeat in battle, Behn would have her protagonist believe that they were slaves because of their innate inferiority. She wrote that Oroonoko “… was ashamed of what he had done, in endeavoring to make those Free, who were by Nature Slaves.”
What she meant by “natural slave,” stands in stark contrast to Oroonoko. Not only did she portray him as above the common class that swelled the slave ranks, but also to the other royals. Behn writes that his superiority resulted from his closeness to European culture and appearance. Behn described Oroonoko as quite dark, his skin-tone is much purer than the “rusty brown” faces of the others. She describes his facial features, consisting of a “Roman” nose, gleaming white teeth, and lips that do not poke out, are much less African. She explains, his manners, knowledge of European culture, and ability to speak several European languages mark him as a cut above those around him.
To her credit, Behn acknowledges that the cruel conditions she saw in Surinam fostered a change in those who toiled under the whip, writing” that they had lost the Divine Quality of Men, and were become insensible Asses, fit only to bear; nay worse…” Seeing that this statement precedes the remark about natural slaves, you may draw that while she perceives them to be inferior people, she does not see them as an inferior species unless made so by torture. But that leads one to wonder how she could expect anything else. In a society where the population of blacks rivaled or surpassed that of whites, how could the Europeans maintain control without some degree of repression?
In this sense, Oroonoko is not a critical analysis, but rather a rationalization after the fact. Keeping in mind the author’s spiritual beliefs, which she makes clear throughout the narrative, the institution of slavery presented a severe challenge to Christian ideals. Like other Europeans, Behn marveled at the wonders that this new land could produce. Gaining quick and easy access to these resources, however, required the exploitation of someone. It would therefore be convenient to imagine that there were those, who by dint of their natural inferiority deserved their subservient roles. This not only applied to Africans, but also to the indentured European servant exported to the New World for the same purpose.
I feel that the narrator feels that her race was superior, it was noted that she feels that the impressiveness of her race is being threatened because of Oroonoko‟s doubt, then she employs the singular umbrage of personal pronoun on behalf of plural race. She became upset that Oroonok would think that she would lie to him. She felt that her race morals and values were higher than those of him.
Oroonoko: Or The History of The Royal Slave Penguin
Oroonoko and his Path to Enlightenment Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, written with dedicated themes of racism, freedom, and slavery, are a vivid representation of the 18th century. During this time, enlightenment was exemplified, and the age saw violent slave trading on a global scale. It is clear to see why such topics might garner such interest, as Behn’s vivid descriptions of the African natives and their plight is so strongly detailed. Aphra Behn, although seeking to explore racial divide, is seemingly looking for more, and it is seen through the theme of enlightenment. Through the character of Oroonoko, Behn asks her readers to explore their understanding of what it means to be enlightened, and what it means to be profane. In exploring Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?”, and Behn’s feelings through slavery, racism, and enlightenment, one can gain a better understanding towards the age. Early on, it is clear that Behn wants us to sympathize with Oroonoko, as she tells readers that she has personally witnessed the great actions of “The Royal Slave”, and describes him as a great man. She says, “I have often seen and conversed with this great man, and been a witness to many of his mighty actions — the most illustrious courts could not have produced a braver man”, this exemplifies the respect and dignity that Oroonoko carries with him. There is no question that his character is admirable and physically beautiful, his complexion is “not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony, or polished jet”, and “his nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat”, it is evident that his African inherited traits are paired with those of a European, all to make the ideal masculine body, and ideals of masculine beauty. Additionally, Oroonoko is educated and is admired for so, he speaks “French and English — his discourse was admirable upon almost any subject; and whoever had heard him speak, would have been convinced of their errors”, the prince is unlike no other man in the words of the narrator, assumably Aphra Behn.
Although Oroonoko is beautiful, brilliant, and admired, he is still a slave and is not in possession of his own liberty, this is shown as he “endured no more of the slave but the name”. Aphra Behn, going back to the sympathy that is placed upon us, regards it as a misfortune to be a slave, particularly for a great man like Oroonoko. However, she does not appear to be particularly horrified by the experience of the slave trade or the way in which it is conducted, which she describes in rather pragmatic terms “but at the cutting off the other arm, his head sunk, and his pipe dropped”. Slavery can be, in some ways, seen romanticed by Behn, which can for the most part be seen with the reunion of Oroonoko and Imoida. For instance, upon Oroonoko’s arrival at the “house of the slaves”, it is noted that the black slaves “prepared all their barbarous music, and everyone killed and dressed something of his own stock and clubbing it together, made a most magnificent supper”, this all seems a rather joyful description for his arrival at a slave camp, and odd that the Enligh captors would allow for such festivities to happen. The light treatment of slavery, possibly having to do with Oroonoko and Imoinda’s status as nobles, is overall seemingly light considering the graveness of slavery in this age. In Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” he describes enlightenment as “the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority sapere aude” to discover and to be informed were amongst the most important qualities to have in this time. Kant states that cowardice and the dependance on the guidance of others is the reason for self-incurred minority, which in turn, strengthens their laziness. He proposes that the requirements for enlightenment are to think freely, act judiciously and to be treated in accordance with one’s dignity “upon the principles of government, which finds it profitable to itself to treat the human being, who is now more than a machine, in keeping with his dignity”. It is clear that the character of Oroonoko is Behn’s way of contrasting enlightened with the profane.
Oroonoko’s virtue does not allow him to be deceptive of others. It is only when he is wronged against, that he rebels and fights back. This is evident when he finally has to acknowledge his grandfather’s treachery, and later when he realizes he will always be subject to the Christian Europeans. To compare Immanuel Kant’s essay, and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko with one another, the Europeans attempt to ‘enlighten’, and educate people through the settling of colonies and slavery. However, Oroonoko is able to acknowledge the subjugation of the African race and the racial prejudice among the European Christians. If this society was truly an “enlightened age”, then slavery and deceit would not be tolerated. If it were the case, the African race would have the freedom to have their own thoughts, and ideas and would not be forced into blind obedience. Oroonoko asks of his people, “Why, my dear friends and fellow sufferers, should we be slaves to an unknown people? … And why are we, by the chance of war, become their slaves? We are bought and sold like apes, or monkeys”. Oroonoko exemplifies enlightenment when he is questioned: why him and his people are slaves. Oroonoko is smart, and he is capable of understanding that the leadership that has been forced upon them is dishonest, the Europeans wrongfully enforcing obedience as well as physical and intellectual slavery. Oroonoko endeavoured “to make those free, who were by nature slaves,” who had been “whipped into the knowledge of the Christian gods”. He had “no faith in the white man, or the gods they adored; who instructed them in principles so false”. Oroonoko questions the superiority of the Europeans, and how they have tried to corrupt their native civilization and feed them false ideas and knowledge while wrongfully keeping them in captivity. Through Oroonoko’s honor, he is led into enlightenment.
Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko does involve the issues of racism and slavery, but we must consider these issues in relation to her notion of enlightenment and the profane. While slavery may seem like an issue that revolves solely around racism, most societies during the time see it as an issue of class. It is not that Oroonoko is African which makes his subjection to slavery so appalling; it is his social rank that Behn seeks to point out. There is a clear underlying ideology of white supremacy in this story. Behn firstly describes Oroonoko as a beautiful man – like no other – with European features interlaced with his African traits, transcending all of those of his race. Behn, although this may be far off, may even demonstrate some European superiority, even if subconsciously, through describing Oroonoko’s physical attributes and nobility, which would never be expected from an African man, reinforcing that he is one-of-a-kind. Behn conveys – through Oroonoko – the horrors of slavery and depicts the European colonists as violent and wicked. Oroonoko, being aware of the oppression of his race and the natives, exemplifies enlightenment through his abilities to understand that they have been wrongfully enslaved, and Kant’s sapere aude, dare to know, is shown here in Oroonoko. Behn finds profanity not necessarily in slavery, but in the lack of societies to hold true to their honor. The king does not honor Oroonoko; he is more concerned with possessions.
The Europeans do not honor Oroonoko, as they continuously cheat, lie, and murder him through dismemberment. Oroonoko stands above these communities as he takes them for their word, even when he was previously deceived. Oroonoko rises above the profanity within society; it is his honor that leads him into enlightenment, and through this enlightenment, the European’s superiority is evident.
Why I Don’t Trust Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko
The themes of kingship, slavery, colonialism, and feminism in Oroonoko are the elucidation of narrator’s ability to cover multiple dimensions in a piece of writing. The objectiveness of different themes creates doubts related to the accuracy of narration. The element of gender orientation asserts the aspects of rationality and logic. The narration is highly objective, and the impact of cultural appropriation is highly visible along with the reflection of different aspects of the human condition which are portrayed through different characters.
There are a few motivations behind why I don’t trust this story at any point occurred. It shouldn’t imply that it couldn’t have happened to different slaves. The purposes behind this are she doesn’t name herself but projecting the principle character of Caesar, and the deteriorating of the author herself. The author avoided mentioning her name maybe she is concealing something. The Author likewise change to the first and third individual all through the story. She gives a few indications of her identity by references to individuals that she knew which contributes me the feeling that if she had another intention. She was most likely endeavoring to put forth a political expression about servitude and the congregation. This was most likely the main way she could give her voice a chance to be known for being a female voice this time ever.
The second reason is the slave name for the fundamental character is Caesar. She influences a reasonable connection to the Roman sovereign when they to give him this name. On the off chance that gives insight at the account of Julius Caesar and that of the slave, there are a few likenesses. Caesar needed to better the republic by assuming responsibility for the duration of his life. Taking everything into account, I don’t think this was a genuine occasion. It was a similitude of her life. The Julius Caesar interface with the slave associated her hunger for expert over man. The fallings connected her distress Oronoko is a clear depiction of cultural appropriation, which is disappointing because not exclusively is Behn benefitting by transforming a valid ordeal into acting, yet during the time spent doing as such argues for the government, and by expansion, subjugation. This applauding of colonialism comes through when Behn portrays the connections between the colonizers and the locals, guaranteeing that they and the Europeans “live… in perfect Amity” and that the Europeans do not command them, but offer them “brotherly and friendly Affection” (see revisionist history). She likewise depicts them with characteristics regularly credited to ladies in a man-centric setting, applauding them for existence “modest, bashful, and very shy,” as though they are just deserving of being adulated when submissive.
Furthermore, Behn takes note of that they are a case of “an absolute Idea of the first State of Innocence” and that showing them about religion would ruin this purity, discussing them as if they were kids. In framing the story in such dialect, Behn is strengthening the legitimacy of colonizer abuse. By encircling this work as factual history, Behn has usurped the experience of the oppressed individuals of Africa and has not just utilized it to turn an individual benefit, yet additionally to approve the organization of subjugation. The novel, at that point, is the most exceedingly lousy sort of social allocation. It is smarter to peruse good slave stories by any semblance of Mary Prince, Frederick Douglas, and Olaudah Equiano. Love of Oroonoko for Imoinda was unlimited and ceaseless and never-ending. In the wake of being sold to various chiefs consistently, he never lost the sentiment of affection for Imoinda. The first occasion when he looked at her after originating from the war, he felt genuine romance at first sight. He didn’t know how to express his affection. It wasn’t some time before he needed to revisit her and let his sentiments be known to her. He venerated Imoinda. In those occasions, men could have the same number of ladies or spouses as they needed, however, Oroonoko sensed he didn’t require or are necessary to have each one of those ladies. He just needed Imoinda. Behn said she heard Oroonoko say, “he admired by what strange inspiration he came to talk things so soft, and so passionate, who never knew love, nor was used to the conversation of women.” As evidence, we can say, Imoinda remained unaware of love yet by the words Oroonoko had addressed her. From that point on them, two acknowledged they were intended to be in love.
Another indication of Oroonoko love was shown at the congregation when the women were moving, and Oroonoko laid on one of the rugs over the room. Imoinda relatively tumbled to the floor yet Oroonoko gets her and grasps her in his arms, knowing this would disturb the lord. It resembled he couldn’t have cared less what the lord thought. He was not worried about death for being rebellious. His solitary concerned was Imoinda. The shift of the logical thinking to emotional wellbeing depicted in the character of Oronooko. As the narrator, Behn makes utilization of two standard types of portrayal, the third individual and the primary individual. She relates what she is available for in the principal individual while depending on the expressions of Oroonoko himself to clarify what she didn’t see. The viability of every one of these methods of portrayal judged by two benchmarks, the capacity to adequately pass on activity and by the ability to depict feeling. Inspecting two separate entries of Oroonoko, each portraying Oroonoko in the fight, can best show these benchmarks. “The first of these passages, from page 2187-88 (“While he was speaking….wounded him almost to death”), is a third-person account of one of Oroonoko’s battles, while the second passage, from page 2199-2200 (“sometimes we would go surprisingly…strong limbs”) is a first-person narrative about Oronooko’s encounter with a tiger.” Even though in Oroonoko, both first and third individual portrayal modes are essential to finish the story, the third personal depiction fills just the need of uncovering significant points of interest for which Behn was missing, and is less alluring than the intermediate representation of the character. The central region of evaluation for these entries is their capacity to precisely and viably depict the action of emotions.
The main paragraph reviews Oroonoko defeating own misery, joining his men in the fight, and turning a whole fight around to assert triumph. As a lady and a slave, Imoinda has shown little power in her own hands. She is an individual from two groups that repressed thus has almost no capacity to battle for what she needs. Behn acclaims her for her excellence and her consistency, and it is these characteristics which give her the little impact she has over her particular future. “Imoinda is as irrecoverably lost to me as if she were snatched by the cold arms of death… Oh! she is never to be retrieved… unless I would either ignobly set an ill precedent to my successors, or abandon my country, and fly with her to some unknown world who never heard our story.” Her magnificence influences men to experience passionate feelings for her, regardless of whether she wishes it or not and her steadiness to Oroonoko drives Behn to see Imoinda’s wants as synonymous with those of Oroonoko. The storyteller puts forth an admirable attempt to illuminate the peruse both of her compelling position in the A house in Surinam Colony, and furthermore as a companion of Oroonoko’s. She likewise asserts Oroonoko alluded to her as “his Great Mistress…in whom he had entire confidence” and discloses to us a few times that she could quiet him as her words had extraordinary influence with him.
All through Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko the theme that surrounds the whole scenario is “otherness” construct exclusively in light of the idea of racial personality. If the whole course of displaying the story of the “Noble slave,” this theme is featured through particular account procedures rather than understanding self-versus other prominent in the story itself. Her style of portrayal is somewhat journalistic, which drives the reader of her work, if unchecked, to be constrained to start to think it as truth. However, more essential than that, the reader is unwittingly forced into expecting her inclinations and considerations since she makes individual contributions all through the content. It is also expressed in Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” as the subtle storyteller elements his encounters and experiences with “other” (Africans or different races) and includes personal asides too.
Oroonoko, Or the Royal Slave by Aphra Behn: Differences Between Groups of People Pictured
Where People Meet
As imperialism began engendering in the world, literature captured the explorations as well as the exploitation accompanying with it through a variety of works, such as proses and verses. Responding to this trend, Apha Behn in the seventeenth century wrote Oroonoko; Or, the Royal Slave. Throughout the novel, there is honor differentiating some characters from the others while treachery entraps miserable men, defames the very name of religion, and obliterates a beautiful love of a royal couple. When people from different parts of the world come together to reside in one place, harmony and dissonance will certainly take place. In this work of Behn, there are distinct beliefs and faiths among Europeans, Indians, and black Africans. Each group has a unique religion and culture, and when one meets another, there will be integration and discord taking place.
When Europeans discovered America, they treated this New World like the young continent “in the absence of cities and sedentary agriculture which [most of Europeans] considered to be essential prerequisites of civilized society” (Abbattista). Moreover, they thought “the present state of the American peoples represented the primitive state of mankind” (Abbattista). Therefore, the narrator as a foreigner feels the need to instruct the Natives to become more civilized: “[By] an admiration that is natural to these people, and by the extreme ignorance and simplicity of ‘em, it were not difficult to establish any unknown or extravagant religion among them, and to impose any notions or fictions upon ‘em” (Behn 2346). The Indians are thought to represent “an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin” (2314). According to European, the Indians are malleable and gullible. They are pure and naïve. Therefore, their culture and religion is in need of change.
When the narrator observes the incredulous impression of the Natives on the burning of “some paper” which is done by a European with “a burning glass”, she is reassured that it is justifiable to change and fix the minds of the Natives: “[They are] like to have adored him for a god, and [beg] he [will] give them the characters or figures of his name, that they [may] oppose it against winds and storms; . . . [fancy] it [has] a charm to conquer them, and [keeps] it like a holy relic” (2346). The Natives are described like children who never see things that the adult, Europeans, see everyday, and who cannot comprehend the basic science at which the Europeans look as norms. As infants in the modern time are astonished by paper airlines, the Natives would absolutely be amazed when looking at the steamed machines coming from Europe. Thus, the Europeans give themselves rights to open their eyes and direct their thought in a more probable way that is Christianity.
The Atlantic Ocean separates America from Africa, where there are different people with different cultures and beliefs. Throughout the novel, the black Africans highly value honor, and they never think of violating it. When the English captain entraps Oroonoko and his soldiers, they only think of death because for them, to become a slave is to take their honor away from them: “So that being deprived of all other means, [Oroonoko] [resolves] to perish for want of food . . . sullenly [resolves] upon dying, and [refuses] all things that were brought [to] him” (Behn 2332). Even when they reassure people about their promises, they swear by their honor: “[Oroonoko] swear by [his] honor; which to violate, [will] not only render [him] contemptible and despised by all brave and honest men, and so give [himself] perpetual pain, but it would be eternally offending and diseasing all mankind, harming, betraying, circumventing and outraging all men . . . While the man of no honor suffers every moment the scorn and contempt of the honester world, and dies every day ignominiously in his fame, which is more valuable than life” (Behn 2333). They would rather die than lose their honor. For the women like Imoinda, they respect their husbands as greatly as “other people pay a diety” and look at them as the greats honor the gods could do [them]”, and they are willing to die if they are asked by their husbands (Behn 2355, 2319).
In society of Oroonoko, honor and the great respect of wives for their husbands distinguish his society from the one of the Europeans. However, the Europeans do not appreciate this distinction but consider “black Africans in terms of old stereotypes: uncivilized, barbarian, indolent, unreliable, mentally and materially enslaved and lacking any of the virtues – especially religious virtues – required for progress” (Abbattisa). Moreover,
“[slavery] apologists went so far as to maintain that Africans were destined to be victims of Arab slave-traders or despotic local rulers, and would thus be better off under European masters” (Abbattista). This reasoning justifies the enslavement of millions of African in the course of more than four hundred years. Because the Europeans possessed higher technologies in science, they thought others are inferior in morality and religion. However, the descriptions of some Europeans in the novel are contradicted with this belief.
While some Europeans, like the narrator and Treffry, have good will, the other ones obviously represent imperialism, and their existence make the assumed superiority of Christianity more questionable. When the captain deceives Oroonoko to stay alive on his ship, this cunning European persuades the man of honor “upon the word of a Christian, and [swear] in the name of a great god, which if he should violate, he would expect eternal torment in the world to come” (2333). However, the captain does not keep his promise but sells Oroonoko and his soldiers into slavery. The second time Oroonoko is deceived is when the governor Byam promises to embrace him after his running away with other slaves, and their escape should be looked as “ a heat of youth, and rashness of a too forward courage, and an unconsidered impatience of liberty, and no more” (2351). However, as soon as they can seize their bodies, they start whipping “them in a most deplorable and inhuman manner” (2352). The captain and governor, the worst of Christians, are opposite to the images of Oroonoko. They do not keep their promises and have no honor, but they are leaders in their workplaces. To make sense of this ironic, violence and treachery, but not honor or courage, must help some Christians move higher on their career ladders in their assumedly better world. In the novel, Behn blends her voice in to criticize some people only practice Christianity by its name, such as the ship captain: “Such ill morals are only practiced in Christian countries, where they prefer the bare name of religion, and, without virtue or morality, think that’s sufficient” (2319). Some Christians could read the Bible, but their thoughts and acts are complied with the doctrines of Christianity. Because it fails to direct these souls of the captain and governor away from sins, the theory that Christianity is superior is not true.
When people from different places come to live in the same place, they learn the religion and culture of each other. When Oroonoko is surrounded by the governor’s people, he is on verge of losing his honor again under “the shameful whip”, he imitates the rite of choosing the war leaders in the Indian tribe he has visited earlier, he “[rips] up his own belly, . . . [takes] his bowels[,] and [pulls] ‘em out” (2357). In his experience of being deceived by the some Europeans, he also learns: “Never drink with Christians without his weapon of defense in his hand; and for his own security, never credit one word they spoke” (2351). However, people could lose their original identities and create new ones. In the case of Oroonoko, while he is mutilated, he smokes a pipe. At the beginning, he looks more like a European: “His nose was rising and Roman” (2317). In the end, he acts more like a European while smoking a pipe. Nevertheless, he does not lose his traditional values where honor is in the center; he lets other cut off his body “as if nothing had touched him . . . without a groan or reproach”(2358). Oroonoko is influenced by the beliefs of the Indians and the culture of the Europeans while still keeping his core beliefs.
With their advances in technologies, the Europeans explored the world and promoted imperialism to rural tribes in the African and America. They also strived to assimilate other cultures to their own and convert other people to Christianity. They thought that Christianity could justify their superiority over other religions and their enslavement of other people . However, the truth is that neither a religion is better than another, and in the world, there are only a few things that are absolutely true or wrong. Each religion and culture in the novel has its unique beauty, and they do not need to be changed.
Dehumanizing Nature of Slavery in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko
Oroonoko is an anti-slavery text, but it is not a text arguing for the liberation of slaves. Rather, the character Oroonoko is the vehicle with which Aphra Behn exposes the Englishman’s failings to uphold the very values he uses to exemplify and rationalize his superiority over other races—chiefly: Christianity, morality, and civility. As discussed in class, Oroonoko represents many allegorical virtues that earn him distinction from his own race, of which three are most closely paralleled in contrast with the failings of the white man: honor, purity, and courage. The significance of these virtues is in their establishment by a white, female narrator. Behn claims the authority to tell Oroonoko’s story with a white narrator, but simultaneously taints that authorial whiteness with a female’s voice, thus rendering it a conflicting report. However, Behn’s use of a white narrator places her in a uniquely powerful position to craft Oronooko as a critical commentary on the exploitation of slaves, wherein she names slavery as the cause for dehumanization in the white man.
Behn’s concern for the debilitation of white humanity is evidenced from the onset of Oroonoko. “And [this history] shall come simply into the world, recommended by its own proper merits and natural intrigues, there being enough of reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the addition of invention” (Behn, 2183). While in class we considered the necessity for Behn to fortify her female narrator with claims as to the truth of her report, her desire for the captive attention of the reader, not just the temporary interest, is also at play. Behn uses several words that suggest that the information she is about to relay is truthful, but more importantly, that it should be read as but a piece of a larger picture. “Proper merits” is latently ironic because so much of the story does not occur on proper merits—Oroonoko is betrayed by “the captain,” a man whom he had a predisposition to trust because of their longstanding partnership in trading slaves. However, although Oroonoko was not accorded the merit due to him, he reclaims it himself in his verbal exchanges with the captain, denouncing a man who would jeopardize his honor for an intangible god (Behn, 2203).
There is also significance in withholding the name of the man who succeeds in capturing Oroonoko and his attendants through trickery. By only referring to him as “the captain,” Behn prevents the reader from dismissing the occurrence (which we are meant to read with indignant, angry, emotion because we experience it from Oroonoko’s point of view) as the actions of one individual. The ambiguity of the captain’s identity forces the white reader to feel ashamed on behalf of the unnamed individual who is representing white people in his relationship with Oroonoko. With regard to the nature of the shame the reader is meant to feel, Behn appears to leave that open to interpretation. While the modern-day reader would likely read it through the glaze of shame that a black man was enslaved by a white man, I contend that Behn’s concern at the time of writing this was not over the fact that Oroonoko was being enslaved, but how it happened. The faceless, lying, white captain effectively works to communicate Behn’s fear that the expanding slave trade was causing Englishmen to regress in their moral judgment.
In his essay “Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko”: Cultural Dialectics and the Novel,” Oddvar Holmesland proposes that Behn regards this regression with regretful hindsight, that is, Oroonoko is evidence of a moral regression that has already taken place. “Oroonoko is victimized by civilized brutality, against which he pits the honesty, honor, and loyalty nurtured in a seemingly more natural order” (Holmesland, 61). In concurrence with my own reading, Holmesland does not interpret Behn to be against slavery as an institution, rather, he proposes that she has employed her narrator to embody the inherent instability in rapid colonization, and to meditate upon the cultural shift from royal romanticism to colonial expansionism. However, Holmesland goes so far as to say that the narrator is the vehicle through which Behn tries to claim the authority to report Oroonoko as a true story. “To recognize the instability of the narrator’s position in Oroonoko is also to acknowledge the complexity involved in her effort to create novelistic verisimilitude” (Holmesland, 60). The characteristically European perfections the narrator ascribes to Oroonoko would seem evidence to the contrary; Behn’s insistence as to the story’s authenticity naturally imbues the reader with a desire to read closely to find falsehoods, and therein lies her true goal. She is not, as Holmesland says, purposefully using the instability of her narrator to further the authenticity of the story. Rather, the instability of the character serves to reveal the reader’s disinclination to recognize slavery as having a negative, uncivilized effect on the psyche of the white race and draw the reader into these reflections via Oroonoko’s discourse.
Among the many discourses available to examine and interpret in Oroonoko is that of the reconciliation (or lack thereof) between distinct values. These values may be separated into two camps, one representing old-school values consistent with those Oroonoko holds, and the other representing an emerging new school whose qualities are murkier. According to Holmesland, the narrator and protagonist exist to engage with one another as representatives of these schools. “In effect, the protagonist embodies the narrator’s way of mediating between the best of the aristocratic and progressive worlds, thus fashioning a model for the modern age” (Holmesland, 67). It is important to note the lack of one-on-one exchanges we actually witness in the story, as this suggests that the schools of value (aristocratic and progressive) were rarely engaged with one another in a productive way.
This lack of productivity is chiefly evidenced by the narrator’s apparent unwillingness to expend herself in assistance to Oroonoko beyond what is comfortable for her, for twice she leaves him in his hour of need. “We were all (but Caesar) afflicted at this news; and the sight was gashly; his discourse was sad, and the earthly smell about him so strong that I was persuaded to leave the place for some time (being myself but sickly, and very apt to fall into fits of dangerous illness upon any extraordinary melancholy)” (Behn, 2225). If we recall Holmesland’s assertion that Caesar embodies the model synthesis of aristocratic and progressive values, it would stand to reason that progressive values (the narrator) are somehow weakened in the presence of aristocratic ones (Caesar), and so must remain separate to retain their strength. However, it is also important to note that the narrator left at another’s insistence, whom we may assume to be of the same progressive school the narrator represents. Might we then conclude that progressive values draw their strength from the number of people who subscribe to those values, while aristocratic values have an inherent strength? If this is the case, then an anti-slavery reading of the text denounces the emerging values as devoid of the natural, honorable resilience Caesar exhibits.
Behn’s concern over the natural order is evidenced by her choice of hero: an African prince who we are meant to read as wrongfully enslaved. In her essay, “Oroonoko: Birth of a Paradigm,” Moira Ferguson contends that a more specific concern of Behn’s is over what is being sacrificed to pursue the colonial mindset. “The conflicts of the narrator over colonialist assumptions come most into play after the rebellion. Objectively and silently, she condemns it while mourning the cold-blooded torture and murder of a royal prince, the destabilizing of power” (Ferguson, 355). Destabilization features prominently throughout the story as a backdrop for the paradoxical enslavement of a royal person. By establishing Oroonoko as a motif for the aristocratic values, Behn flattens his character to his allegorical likenesses, impressing his blackness upon the reader through his European perfections that dramatize the cruelty Oroonoko experiences in his dealings with white men. Corralled into one entity, blackness and aristocratic values function to create a distinct sense of separation between the past and present, and the impossibility of their reconciliation is evidenced by Oroonoko’s death—for all of his traditional perfections, he does not survive. The uncharted territory of the present is then encapsulated within her narrator, who gives voice to the instability of the colonial mindset while withholding a renunciation of colonialism itself.
Behn’s chief priority with Oroonoko appears to be opening a dialogue with regard to the changes occurring in the psyche of the Englishman, and desirous of considering colonialism as inhibiting humanity. “They cut Caesar in quarters, and sent them to several of the chief plantations” (Behn, 2226). Oroonoko’s embodiment of traditional values is thus literally torn apart, the savage push towards expansion evident in the decision to send pieces of Oroonoko’s body out. It is as if the aristocratic values of decency and honor have been ravaged by the drive to push outwards, and Behn is issuing a sharp warning that the colonialist endeavor to expand his sovereignty cannot be deemed successful if colonists arrive to their destinations devoid of humanity.
Oroonoko by Aphra Behn: Literary Review
Discuss the treatment of one of the following in the literature of this period: women; the poor; foreigners; the nobility.
There is a gradual progression of the treatment of women from the seventeenth century to the eighteenth century. In Oroonoko, Aphra Behn uses the discourse of slavery and differences in racial circles to demonstrate power structures, specifically relating to the oppression of women in seventeenth century England. The female narrator evidently has strong influences over the African Prince Oroonoko and has considerably more power than the other slaves, such as Imoinda. However, we see that contrary to her belief, her authority and influence only extend to the slaves and she is unable to stop the course of events carried out by the white colonists due to her essentially being female. Imoinda, on the other hand, being inferior not only because of her position as a black and a slave, but also because of her position as women is oppressed, confined, and thus objectified by the white colonists and the Coramantein King. In contrast, while the women in Francis Burney’s novel Evelina, are mostly persecuted by some of the men around them, and consistently deprived of power, Burney shows the women of eighteenth century England as almost being worshipped and through their sensibility they are seen to be somewhat better than the men in this discourse and their position is raised. However, through Mrs Selwyn, we see a negative shift in attitude towards women who did not conform to the ideals of sensibility.
The narrator has power over Oroonoko, evident when the white slave holders ask her to convince Oroonoko of his release at the general’s return. She successfully manages to get Oroonoko’s trust and he believes her, despite his suspicions of being ‘fed Day to Day with Promises’ . She convinces him to take several diversions such as hunting tigers, visiting the Surinam Indians with Imoinda and fishing. While, it is unclear the reason she uses her influence over Oroonoko to delay his uprising, she continuously detaches herself from the actions of the men of her society, despite her previous alignment with the dominant power, making it hard to tell if she is on Oroonoko’s side or the side of the white colonists. This is because, even though she does their bidding, she is unwilling to take responsibility for the actions of the men of her society. Referring to the men as ‘they’, the change in pronouns shows she does not believe herself to be part of them and places their actions separate to herself. She is unable to do anything about the situation, due to her sex, and as a woman, her only choice is to flee from the scene of action. She aligns herself with the Europeans saying ‘we were possess’d with extreme Fear’ and that she and the Europeans were afraid they would cut their throats, however it was while she was away, ‘they acted this cruelty’ . This continuous shift in pronouns shows her powerlessness and when there is open conflict she considers herself a member of colonial society. However by separating herself from the brutality of the white colonists, she doesn’t have to take responsibility as she is clearly aligning herself with the powerless members of society, showing that ‘Behn’s narrator identifies with the fate of a black slave because she sees his powerlessness as homologous with her own’ ; thus contradicting her previous statement of power and authority. Behn shows the narrators denial about her power when she later claims that had she been there she would have prevented it. This however is untrue, and we see that she has an illusion of having high status, because while she may be given the outward respect and status of power, when she is needed and the moment for her to exercise her power appears, she is unable to execute her claims of authority. Therefore, we come to the understanding that in the face of a crisis, it is the men who have the real power; she would not have been able to stop the killing of Oroonoko and arguably she would have become a helpless spectator, because of her femininity. In this way, the narrator takes a position where she is able to observe and record events of the novel, with no actual power of stopping or starting these events.
Throughout much of the novel, Imoinda has little opportunity to control her own destiny. She is not given the choice or refusal of marriage, and due to this she inhabits a very passive role within the novel. Imoinda is described as a black beauty, a most charming thing that the Coramantien King had ever seen in all his years, and it is this beauty that causes her to be objectified in almost every way, by almost all the male characters she comes across. She at once ‘remains alien, remote and largely silent. Doubly oppressed, Imoinda is an emblem of both sexual and racial otherness’ . At the start of the narrative, we see Imoinda being possessed by the African King, because he desires her and he uses his power as King to make her his wife, using the royal viel. In African culture, it was common for women to be claimed by marriage or commandeered as royal property. Imoinda is unable to refuse this offer of marriage by her King, and we see her double enslavement first by the king and then by the white slave holders. The fact that Imoinda had no choice in the matter of marriage shows the inferiority of her position, as she is not given choice, highlighting her inability to control her fate. The only power Imoinda seems to have is the power to not submit sexually to the King, and we see her exercise this small power she has. In this way while the king does possess Imoinda’s body, he is unable to possess her sexually. Imoinda further exercises the small amount of power she has by choosing to make love to Oroonoko, somewhat controlling her fate.
‘The ideal love between Imoinda and Oroonoko becomes symbolic of the inequality of the power relations between men and women’ . In order to protect Imoinda from possible punishment, Oroonoko kills her with the intention to kill the white colonist next. His killing of her is justified by him not wanting her to be assaulted by the white men, believing that he is protecting her virtue. It is this ownership that he has over Imoinda sexually that allows for him to carry out this task. However, Imoinda is not depicted as being helpless during this as Behn shows the bravery in Imoinda’s character. It is Imoinda who suggests being killed by Oroonoko’s hands before he has a chance to make this offer. On the other hand, Imoinda wouldn’t have said no to Oronooko’s suggestion, because as his wife she would have been obedient to his desires. Behn equips Imoinda with masculine characteristics several times in the story, showing that while Imoinda has little power she still tries to take control whenever she gets a chance. Here, she chooses to have a notable death rather than facing the possibility of a brutal rape and murder, which would dishonour her. Another point in which Imoinda is depicted as a powerful women is when the uprising occurs, and the other slave females are put in the rear of the male slaves with the children, Imoinda whilst heavily pregnant draws her arrow and stands fearless beside her husband, successfully injuring the general.
In contrast, Francis Burney does not equip her heroine with fearless characteristics, instead the qualities valued and rewarded in women of the eighteenth century were chastity, passivity and fragility; all of which are attributes of sensibility and which Evelina possess. Evelina has a high sense of passivity throughout the novel and even in the face of danger takes on a more passive role, choosing to wait for another individual to save her. In this case, she relies on Sir Clement to save her from a group of drunk men, only then to make unwanted advances that make Evelina uncomfortable. We see how Sir Clement takes advantage of his dominance over Evelina, and interestingly several of the men in the novel exercise their authority over Evelina, for instance Mr Orville and Mr Villars who is Evelina’s guardian. However, Burney shows their dominance to be positive, rather than negative as it allows Evelina to grow and mature in a protected atmosphere. Evelina is consistently open to attack, because in terms of sensibility she was raised to be passive, and essentially a perfect woman. ‘The ideal women was an essentially passive creature, her power was not in action but in influence. Her virtues consisted primarily of negatives: she did not contradict or complain; she did not attract undue attention; and most important of all, she did not make selfish demands’ .
Indeed, we see that Evelina does possess all these negative characteristics towards the end of the novel, however, at the beginning Evelina voices her true opinions and exercises free will over her actions. For instance when she first goes to the ball, she notes that the ‘gentlemen, as they passed and repassed looked as if they thought we were quite at their disposal, and only waiting for the honour of their commands’ . She does not seem to like how the men are the ones who are given the power to choice, she appears to understand and shows a resentment towards the rules at the ball which place women in a power of weaker position. The fact that she refuses to dance with Mr Lovel and then accepts a dance with Mr Orville show her desire to be given the choice to pick her own dancing partner, thus making her equal to the men. However, this is because she wasn’t aware of the fundamental rules of courtship and the ‘impropriety of refusing one partner and afterwards accepting another’ . Another point in the novel in which Evelina doesn’t conform to sensibility is when she is unable to control her laughter at Mr Lovel. As the novel progresses, Burney’s heroine ‘becomes more and more unwilling to voice her opinions, much less laugh, out loud’ .
Burney’s Mrs Selwyn is an example of women who challenge the rules of conduct, and mock the male authority. She can be described as a female trickster who is ‘the polar opposite of an angel, she wilfully violates codes of female behaviour, and above all, she laughs’. Evelina describes Mrs Selwyn as having an understanding that can be called masculine and that her acquiring knowledge about men has caused her to lose her softness. Mrs Selwyn isn’t described in a negative way, and her disputes with the gentlemen who say they have an aversion to strength in a female usually end with her having the last laugh. She is able to mock the masculine authority in a way that Evelina is not able to, and she unlike the other female characters doesn’t possess the delicate characteristics they do. Yet, she is still portrayed as a strong and positive female character.
The women in Oroonoko are depicted inferior to men, as even though they are working within different circles, both females are left in the outside of decision making. While Imoinda’s power structure with Oroonoko is one of loving and choice, she allows Oroonoko to lead and accepts that he is the man, the narrator has power over the slaves, however she is still placed lower to the white men who are at the top. Similarly, the women in Evelina are inferior to the men, but their inferiority is not depicted negatively and Burney allows for the creation of a strong female in Mrs Selwyn whose understanding and reason aren’t deficient.
The Morality Vs Power: Oroonoko Representation
Humans have wrestled with power and morality throughout time, recognizing that the issue is much more elaborate than simply deciding good from evil. Aphra Behn’s narrative Oroonoko: the Royal Slave focuses on the relationship between those in power and those in submission, allowing the reader to decipher what motivates the Europeans to continue the cycle of slavery, no matter how horrific the institution. Because of Oroonoko’s contradictory status as a royal slave, a morally ambiguous conflict arises between the oppressor and the oppressed. The complex social hierarchy implemented by the Europeans creates tension throughout Oroonoko, bringing a focus to the internal struggles of balancing power and morality— especially in the lives of Trefry and Aphra Behn.
From the onset of the narrative, Trefry walks a thin line between respecting and oppressing Oroonoko. Upon meeting Oroonoko, Trefry quickly notices his intelligence, befriending Oroonoko and “loving him as his dearest brother and showing him all the civilities due so a great man” (2157). Trefry looks past Oroonoko’s difference in skin color and focuses on the content of his character, and by doing so, Trefry soon learns of Oroonoko’s many plights. By putting his dominance aside, Trefry is able to focus on equalizing Oroonoko instead of alienating him, and in his desperation to help Oroonoko, Trefry promises to reunite Oroonoko with his family. However, Trefry cannot possibly keep his word to Oroonoko without great repercussions, and although Trefry quickly becomes friends with Oroonoko, he never relinquishes his dominant role. For example, Trefry renames Oroonoko, which is a common practice for new slaves, proving Oroonoko’s royal status does not absolve him of his fate (2158). By giving Oroonoko the name Caesar, Trefry not only rids Oroonoko of his royal name, he strips away Oroonoko’s personal identity. Moreover, the name Caesar itself foreshadows the great betrayal Trefry will deal Oroonoko. Trefry’s inner indecisiveness tears him in two: one part of him knows Oroonoko deserves freedom, and the other reminds Trefry of his allegiance to the very system keeping Oroonoko captive. Soon, Oroonoko grows weary of waiting for Trefry to fulfill his promise of freedom. Trefry’s inability to act upon his word pushes Oroonoko over the edge, resulting in Oroonoko’s rebellion, subsequent torture, and death. As Oroonoko is ripped apart piece by piece, Trefry is unable to intervene (2178). The rigid socioeconomic structure of his culture renders Trefry impotent in the situation, and although he knows Oroonoko deserves freedom, he cannot possibly grant the liberation of one slave family while the rest suffer. Despite his power, if Trefry set Oroonoko free, he would carry the burden of arbitrating which slaves deserve freedom and which must remain in captivity. Trefry must sacrifice his relationship with Oroonoko in order to maintain order within his complex social system. Ergo, Trefry is culpable, but not solely responsible for Oroonoko’s death.
Just as Trefry depicts the difficult position of a slave master grappling with morality and power, Aphra Behn provides a more multifaceted view on the precarious role of upper class women. When Behn first encounters Oroonoko, she immediately notices his regal appearance and intellect. Behn notes, “the most illustrious courts could not have produced a braver man, both for greatness of courage and mind,” thus giving the reader a deeper perception of the humanity possessed by Oroonoko (2140). Although at times Behn’s description of Oroonoko objectifies his looks with the European standard of beauty, she goes much further to humanize a black man than many other writers of her time. Furthermore, instead of demeaning Oroonoko, and writing him off simply as a man meant to become a slave based on the color of his skin, Behn outlines Oroonoko’s intelligence and sparkling personality, which accompany his regal stature. Although Behn acknowledges Oroonoko’s difference from the other slaves, she still domineers over Oroonoko by attempting to push her ideals upon him. For example, Behn tells Oroonoko Christian stories, thus imposing her Western culture and belief system upon Oroonoko. When Oroonoko refuses to listen to Behn’s religious stories, Behn simply recites them to Oroonoko’s wife, Imoinda. Behn only follows Oroonoko’s wishes to a certain extent, and relays her beliefs to Imoinda, who has less power and cannot refuse Behn. Although Behn acknowledges Oroonoko as a man greater than the rest of the slaves, she does not fully accept his ideals and beliefs. As Oroonoko faces grave danger and is no longer certain of his promised freedom, Behn is unable to help him, not because of her lack of willingness, but because she is unable to alter his fate. In Behn’s case, her race does not directly grant her power; she is still a woman, thus Behn is still submissive to European men. Aphra Behn utilizes her writing capabilities to keep Oroonoko’s story alive because she cannot save his life. Behn’s unique ability to relate with both the oppressed and the oppressor allows her to understand Oroonoko’s inability to fight for equality, while she receives attention and praise for capturing Oroonoko’s story.
Oroonoko: the Royal Slave reveals that those in power recognize that slavery is morally flawed, but look past their consciences and submit to the system. This passiveness demonstrates power can corrupt even the innocent, causing them to become bystanders, rather than the activists they yearn to be. Trefry and Behn struggle to strike a balance between freedom and restraint within their society. Ultimately, the inability for justice to trump power reveals that the European society is deeply flawed. Oroonoko proves to be the only man living up to his ideals, accepting death because he is not granted liberty. Those in power are not always what they seem, and often are slaves themselves, puppets of a broken system.
Oroonoko Character as the Royalty Allegory
Aphra Behn was born in the midst of the English Civil War and by the time of her death in 1689, she had seen Charles I executed by his own parliament, the overthrow and restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, and finally the deposition and replacing of James II on religious grounds. The only cultural context that Behn ever knew was one marked by major cultural and political turmoil which pitted the Royalist conservatives (Tories) against the Parliamentarian liberals (Whigs). In such a political climate, it is only natural that the artistic and literary output of this time period is marked by a sense of agitation about the English state of affairs, and Behn’s 1688 novella Oroonoko is a blatant example of this. In summary, Oroonoko recounts the tale of an idealized and highly romanticized African prince who is sold into slavery by his grandfather (the king) and is taken to the Dutch colony of Suriname by way of the Middle Passage, where he eventually leads a slave revolt, performs a mercy killing upon his wife, and is eventually executed. Operating as a reactionary response to the political turmoil of this time, Oroonoko is an allegorical narrative that asserts the divine right and honor of kings, a sentiment which echoes Behn’s own Royalist political leanings. While Behn’s work is known for its major contribution to the development of the novel, it is also a text that is highly conditioned by the culture of political anxiety in which it was written.
In order to fully comprehend the allegorical aspects of the novel, it is necessary to examine the significance of “royalty” and “royal blood” in 17th century England. The monarchs of England (as well as many other Western societies) are notable in that their authority was considered a grant from God, which would indicate that divinity was present within the actual person of the monarch and their lineage. Anita Pacheco writes about the conceptual basis of hierarchy, saying that, “. . . through the mysteries of blood, virtue is supposedly transmitted from one generation of the ruling class to the next, so that power is legitimated on the grounds of worthiness, authority presented as hereditary and innate. . .” (494). In other words, the circumstances of a royal’s birth are crucial because by being born in that position, they are said to be naturally granted the idealized virtues and elevated status of divine authority. These notions were central in Royalist ideology and are even more critical considering the context of the time, which saw Parliamentarians seeking to overthrow what they believed was the authority of God, which was made manifest in the person of the monarch. The nature of Royalist belief is critical to understanding the political climate of the time, which was marked by mutual anxiety and violent conflict between two parties who supported radically different notions of government. Written about a royal prince whose authority and honor is challenged by corrupt officials, Oroonoko is a text that is clearly shaped by the political climate of the time, allowing it to operate as an allegorical novel about the divine authority of royalty and the corrupt nature of those who attempt to remove them of their power.
From the onset of the novel, Oroonoko is characterized with the highly admirable characteristics which Behn deliberately implies to be the result of his royal status. When he is introduced, the narrator notes that he has, “. . . that real greatness of soul, those refined notions of true honor, that absolute generosity, and that softness that was capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry . . .” (79-80). While this conveys the reverence the narrator (or Behn herself) holds for this man of royal birth, Oroonoko is also shown to stand out amongst others, almost as though he is inherently different them by virtue of his birth. This is manifested even in his physical appearance, where it is said that, “. . . he was adorned with a native beauty, so transcending all those of his gloomy race that he struck an awe and reverence even into those that knew not his quality . . .” (79). Oroonoko’s character is established in such a way that even his humanity seems negligible, since he is clearly being portrayed as someone who appears as God-like to others. What is significant about Behn’s writing here is that it paints a picture of royalty in the way that she sees it to be: divine, without fault, and untouchable. Oroonoko’s perfections are so, according to Behn, because those qualities are afforded to those of royal birth, who are models of God’s perfection and are thus bestowed upon to maintain authority on earth. Therefore, the Godly presence of Oroonoko is intended to represent the nature of all royals, who are too bestowed with the perfect virtue of kings and are too exalted among men.
Behn continues the narrative with subtler but nonetheless poignant illustrations of the prince’s naturally elevated status. Oroonoko is tricked into slavery by being guided (along with his people) onto the ship of a slaver, whose corrupt Captain had previously befriended the prince only to betray him. What is notable is that the Captain is shown to be a villain less because of his occupation, but more so because (as Oroonoko tells him) of the fact that he betrays his honor by kidnapping a man of the prince’s status (104). While Pacheco argues that this instance shows the prince separating his sense of morality from that of Christians, I would instead suggest that this moment is meant instead to distinguish the elevated position of Oroonoko from that of others, including both his people and the Captain. Oroonoko himself is a slave trader and has never had any objections to the practice on moral or honorable grounds; it is only when he himself is taken as a slave that the practice of enslavement becomes a dishonorable practice in his eyes. In this light, it can be interpreted that Behn wants the audience to understand Oroonoko as a person who (at one point) had the right to act however he wished, regardless of honor, simply by virtue of his position of royalty. In this way, Behn once more seeks to separate the hero of this story from the other characters on the basis of his eminent and divine status.
Another key aspect of Oroonoko is that it deals with the problem of having corrupt individuals in powerful positions, something which is meant to mirror Behn’s abhorrence of the eventually victorious Whig party. The condemnations of such officials appear throughout the latter half of the story, exemplified by the description of Deputy Governor Byam as, “. . . a fellow whose character is not fit to be mentioned with the worst of the slaves” (128). In this statement, Behn seeks to discredit the ideologies and actions of the authoritative individual (Byam) by aligning his character with those considered the dregs of society. Though Byam is not based on any specific historical figure, nor is he meant to represent a specific individual, Byam and his forces are meant to represent an authority that is both criminal and unlawfully in power. In an instance of more generalized criticism, Oroonoko puts forth a poignant denunciation of his captors, saying, “. . . there was no faith in the white men, or the gods they adored; who instructed them in principles so false that honest men could not live amongst them . . .” (130). While one can assign this quote as evidence of anti-colonialist fervor or even abolitionist sentiment, I propose that this statement be read can be read as a general vilification of those who were granted power by corrupted means, which is the case with the power dynamics in Oroonoko. In this context, this statement can be read as evidence of Behn’s attempts to deliberately discredit the authority of the Whig party, whom she believes also seized power and wielded it unjustly. The way in which Behn deals with the problem of corrupted authority is indicative that Oroonoko is meant to be read as a condemnation of those whose power is questionable, especially in comparison to those whose power she considers entirely indisputable.
Oroonoko has been analyzed on a number of different critical platforms, most of which analyze the novel’s depiction of slavery, and while there are fewer detailed attempts to align the work with the political climate of the era, it is generally agreed upon that it is an allegorical work born of Behn’s conservative Tory ideology (Pacheco 491). Oroonoko must be understood as a work that was quite literally borne out of the time it was created in, rather than any specific interest in African society or the question of slavery. Because Behn was so influenced by her political beliefs, it is perhaps most accurate to conclude that her text was written out of these specific sentiments before any obscure beliefs about colonialism or racial superiority. Throughout all of the scholarly analyses of the novel, it always remains that Behn was living and writing during an extremely unpredictable, uniquely violent, and innately explosive time within English history, the nature of which clearly translated into her writings. Despite the fact that female writers were most often writing for the sake of making a living, the texts that have survived from their efforts have undoubtedly been altered and influenced by the climate of the era. Furthermore, while women may have been “cut off” from participation in politics and other realms of society, works like Oroonoko show how women like Behn were nonetheless affected by the turbulence of their respective eras. Most importantly, such works stand out within the British literary canon because they represent the desires of their female authors to assert their voices within the political, social, and cultural climates of the day. Just as Aphra Behn made her voice heard with Oroonoko by communicating her political sentiments, the generations of women that followed her would prove that writing was an effective means of revealing the nature of the societies they lived in as well as state their beliefs about that nature.
Pacheco, Anita. “Royalism and Honor in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 34.3 (1994) 491-506. JSTOR. Web. 14 April 2016.
Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko, The Rover, and Other Works. London: Penguin Books, 1992. Print.
Are We to Trust Narrator: The Problem of Reliability
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe leaves home to see the world, only to find himself in a shipwreck, leaving him stranded on a deserted island for years, while Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko is a royal prince turned slave who meets his ultimate demise in the African country of Surinam. Both Defoe and Behn employ similar techniques of first-person narration in their respective stories, and while this position is advantageous to each narrator’s status within their texts, the reliability of each narrator differs significantly.
Behn’s narrator’s absence from the majority of the events she depicts serves to seriously discredit her narrative reliability. Though the female narrator claims to “have often seen and conversed with [Oroonoko], and been a witness to many of his mighty actions” (2140), it is the detailed accounts she provides the reader of “what [she] could not be witness of” that becomes increasingly problematic. Aside from the events that she personally witnesses, Behn’s narrator is only able to convey a second-hand account that she receives “from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself, who gave us the whole transactions of his youth” (2137). At one point, when speaking of Oroonoko and Imoinda blushing upon seeing each other, the narrator, though not in attendance for this particular event, speculates that “’tis certain that both these changes were evident, this day, in both these lovers” (2145). Again, while she neither personally witnesses these events nor gives any mention of speaking directly to anyone other than Oroonoko himself, the narrator is quick to stray from a viewpoint of objectivity and form assumptions of other characters’ beliefs and emotions: When the King reflects on his decision to enslave both Imoinda and Oroonoko the narrator explains that “he believed he had made a very great conquest over himself when he had once resolved, and had performed what he resolved. He believed now that his love had been unjust” (2150). We can see the narrator’s presumptions of Imoinda’s emotions again despite her fleeting presence when she explains that when “the Prince softly wakened Imoinda, who was not a little surprised with joy to find him there, she trembled with a thousand fears” (2149). Because of her absence for many of the critical events in the story, the secondary nature of her conveyance of information, and her inability to remain objective, Behn’s female narrator is fallible.
Though Robinson Crusoe recalls his story almost entirely from memory, it is through his ability to reflect on his past adventures retrospectively in which he achieves reliability as a narrator. Robinson Crusoe often reveals to the reader what he remembers his thoughts to be at the time of each particular memory or situation, compared to what they are now in retrospect. When reflecting on his choice to defy his father’s wishes and go to sea, Robinson Crusoe explains that “had [he] now had the sense to have gone back to Hull, and have gone home, [he] would have been happy” (14), remembering that he “used to look upon [his] condition with the utmost regret” (32). Reminiscing of his first journey at sea, Robinson Crusoe admits that “it was [his] great misfortune that in all these adventures [he] did not ship [him]self as a sailor” (16), recalling what a “loose and unguided fellow [he] then was” (16). In addition to these reflections, Crusoe does not conceal from the reader when he is uncertain of the exact details of his story; after escaping captivity from his master by stealing his fishing boat, Robinson Crusoe explains that in his ploy to make it to the coast, he “came to an anchor in the mouth of a little river” in which he “knew not what, or where; neither what latitude, what country, what nations, or what river” (22). When reflecting upon his ability to grow various types of food on the island, Crusoe explains that he “had near two bushels of rice, and above two bushels and half of barley, that is to say, by my guess, for I had no measure at that time” (100). Of his first months on the island, Crusoe reflects that he “[did] not remember that [he] had in all that time one thought that so much as tended either to looking upwards toward God, or inwards towards a reflection upon [his] own ways” (76), explaining that he “was merely thoughtless of a God, or a Providence; acted like a mere brute from the principles of nature” (76). Unlike Behn’s female narrator, Robinson Crusoe achieves reliability as a narrator through his tendencies to reflect and provide the reader with comments on his past in retrospect, while also admitting his uncertainty of specific details.
Though Behn’s and Defoe’s narrators differ significantly regarding their credibility in the relation of their respective texts, both Robinson Crusoe and Behn’s female narrator’s positions as narrators allow them to manipulate their position within the novel in a light that is advantageous to them in that it comments on their social status and power. Behn’s female narrator establishes a higher social status than that of many of the other characters in the novel when she tells the reader that “[her] stay was to be short in that country, because [her] father died at sea, and never arrived to possess the honor was designed him (which was lieutenant-general of six and thirty islands, besides the continent of Surinam)” (2162), adding that “as soon as [she] came into the country, the best house in it was presented [to her]” (2163). The way in which the narrator portrays her apparently tight-knit relationship with the story’s protagonist, Oroonoko, is also significant in that it illuminates the power she is able to exercise over the text in order to cast herself in a positive light; the narrator reveals that Oroonoko “had an entire confidence” in her (2162), while mysteriously disappearing during every instance of Oroonoko’s “ill treatment” (2173). Like Behn’s female narrator, Robinson Crusoe, too, immediately makes known to the reader that “[he] was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family” (5). Of his position on the island, Crusoe regards himself as “lord of the whole mannor; or if [he] pleased, [he] might call [himself] King, or emperor over the whole country which [he] had possession of” (109), additionally indicating in a journal entry that the sixth of November meant it was “the sixth year of [his] reign” (117) of his “castle” (131) or “enterprise” (160). Lastly, Robinson Crusoe’s first meeting with Friday is highly indicative of the power he believes he possesses on the island: “I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life. I likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my name” (174). While Behn’s female narrator and Robinson Crusoe differ in the credibility of their respective narratives, their position as a first-person narrator is significant to each text in that it allows each narrator to position themselves in a positive light.
While Behn’s female narrator lacks credibility due to her absence in the majority of the events she depicts, as well as her failure to remain an objective third-party narrator, Robinson Crusoe achieves narrative reliability through his ability to reflect back on his past retrospectively. Both Behn’s narrator and Robinson Crusoe’s role as first-person narrators is significant in that it allows each narrator a certain authority over their texts in which they can manipulate their social status or position themselves to appear in a positive light in comparison with other characters in their novels.
Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson Education, 2010. 2137-2178. Print.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. 2008. Ed. Thomas Keymer. New York: Oxford University Press. Print.
The Implications of Oroonoko
Oroonoko was a ground-breaking and revolutionary novella that depicted its African hero in a dignified, even regal, light and is considered to be one of the first works during this time era that showed a compassionate side towards Africans. It is also deemed historically valuable for its being written by a woman, Aphra Behn, a feat to be marveled at, since women were not often well-educated at the time of publication, as well as the simple fact that this was one of the first English novels to be written. Oroonoko showcases the plight of the Africans and the struggles that they faced with the Europeans by using the theme of the moral question of slavery, as well as that of cultural adaptations. These themes culminated to present a short but concise book that influenced the conventional world and quite conceivably served as a precursor to the abolitionist movement. Aphra Behn wrote Oroonoko for a number of reasons. She wrote because she was poor and needed money; she wrote to become a recognized author and because she liked writing; she wrote to illustrate the misery of slavery; she wrote to tell the story of a person that she may have actually known. Though not much is known of her life, she is still considered to be the predecessor of English women writers. However, the little that we do know about her life influenced how Oroonoko was written. Behn’s extraordinary education is also one of the biggest factors in her worldview – her cultural knowledge and innate feelings toward nobility are featured well. Her theme of the moral implications of slavery was limited by the preconceptions that ran rampant in these times. “Like almost all of her contemporaries, Aphra Behn accepted slavery for most of the enslaved” (Todd xxvi). The theme of cultural adaptations can also be shown to be related to Aphra Behn’s life experiences. Her short-lived experiences as a spy is an example of how she may have needed to culturally adapt to her surroundings as well, as well as the fact that she was a woman writer in an era where practically no women wrote – internally, she must have been able to adapt to the changing political and social standards that were prevalent in her lifetime. The moral implications of slavery was one that was considered widely in the Atlantic World, with most of the questioners agreeing that slavery was beneficial to Europe, and therefore acceptable. Behn was vague in her support of slavery – while she portrayed it as atrocious and horrid, she never stated that she was against it, and even thought of Europeans as superior to the Africans in many ways. Behn’s characterization of Oroonoko demonstrates this, as she describes not a typical African male, but instead an idealized and modified version. She says of him that “his face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony or polished jet. His nose was rising and Roman instead of African and flat. His mouth, the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those great turned lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly form that, bating his colour, there could be noting in nature more beautiful” (Behn 15). From the very beginning, Behn describes Oroonoko’s physical presence as more akin to that of a white person, as opposed to a normal African, and states that if he were not black, he would be the most beautiful person alive. This statement ties in with the common idea of European superiority over the Africans. However, this idea of superiority alone does not make Behn think slavery is righteous. She speaks of the treacherous white governor and painstakingly details the horrific abuse and torture of Oroonoko at the hands of him, and notes many other instances of cruelty to the slaves. However, Behn never speaks of banning the establishment of slavery, and even has Oroonoko himself give gifts of slaves. Behn is ambiguous in that she has arguments in both sides of the slavery debate, and never fully commits to one or the other. Even in the issue of superiority, there are clear cases where she considers the Africans to be superior, such as when Oroonoko slays two tigers that no white man could fight. The theme of cultural adaptations is also prevalent throughout Oroonoko. The wide rift between Africans and Europeans are clearly demonstrated, though similarities do exist as well. The theme of a patriarchal society are evident in both cultures, as well as the issue of nobility. In both cultures, nobility is revered and respected, and Behnherself almost idolizes it. The aforementioned cultural adaptations, in respect to this novella at least, is that Oroonoko and his love, Imoinda have to adjust in the world of white men, something totally foreign to them. What is hardest for them in this is that they are no longer free; they are slaves. What catalyzes this whole tragedy is the urge for them to be free once more, and they cannot bear to be subjugated to the unfamiliar and strange ways of their masters. Oroonoko and Imoinda are unable to adapt to the cultures of the Europeans, not because they were savages or because they were uncivilized and ignorant, but because they could simply not bear to be subjected. Behn uses the setting of Surinam to aid in her writing of Oroonoko. Her account of Oroonoko’s story is the earliest fictional representation of Africans under an English writer, at least under the Sahara desert (Todd xxiv). In the end, Oroonoko, Imoinda and their unborn child die because of their unwillingness to adapt to the cultural norms of society. They would rather kill themselves then acclimatize and accept their newfound lifestyle, and while this is noble and tragic in Behn’s eyes, in reality it may seem unrealistic and extreme. Behn’s novella is beset with inconsistencies. Intentional or not, factual or not, these inconsistencies lend to the air of confusion that Behn creates in Oroonoko. This confusion stems from the mixed allegiances Behn feels towards the idea of slavery being a cruel and outdated institution, and the idea that since it benefits Europe, it is tolerable. This air of confusion is not necessarily detrimental to the novel, because it helps to highlight the author and her tone. As a historical document, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko indisputably holds importance. It is the first novel to sympathize with the African natives, and it is one of the first novels written by a European woman, as well. Aside from these barriers being broken down, it also was written for political reasons, and examining this helps shed lights on the political factions of this time, and aids in understanding them. The themes that Behn writes about in it also examines the worldview of Europeans and Africans during this time, a valuable thing to study.Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko implemented the theme of the moral question of slavery and of cultural adaptations to show that slavery was not the one-dimensional issue that most people of this era seemed to think it was. Though not necessarily an anti-slavery document, there are definite moments where Behn showcases the absolute dreadfulness of injustice. Considered to be one of the first abolitionist works, Oroonoko is unquestionably one of the most telling and information-providing historical documents that we have from this time period. Behn carefully crafted and melded Oroonoko into a novel that would raise haunting questions to the ideas and moral implications of slavery, and to what lengths some will go to in an effort to be truly free.